New Delhi: India and China on Tuesday agreed to move past their recent confrontation on the Doklam plateau in Bhutan—their most serious spat in two decades—and proposed a blueprint for more stable ties.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Chinese President Xi Jinping agreed that peace and tranquillity on the border was a “prerequisite" for improving bilateral ties at their meeting in Xiamen on the sidelines of the 9th summit of the Brazil-Russia-India-China-South Africa (BRICS) group of developing economies.
The surprising turn of events, especially as it comes just after the 73-day standoff in Doklam was defused, signals a rethink on the part of the Asian neighbours. It has unexpectedly created diplomatic space for the two countries, who have otherwise had a testy relationship, to reset their ties.
Briefing reporters on the first meeting between Modi and Xi since the end of the Doklam standoff on 28 August, foreign secretary S. Jaishankar said the discussions were “forward looking."
“Both of us know what happened. This was not a backwards-looking conversation. This was a forward-looking conversation." he said. “There was a sense that if the relationship is to go forward, then peace and tranquillity on the border area should be maintained," Jaishankar said, adding that both sides agreed that strong contacts between their defence personnel were needed to prevent another border incident.
“On both sides there was a sense that more efforts need to be made to ensure that these kinds of situations don’t reoccur," he said.
Both leaders recalled their last meeting in the Kazakh capital Asthana on the sidelines of a regional meeting in early June, days before the standoff began. At the time, they had agreed that differences between the two countries should not be allowed to become disputes, Jaishankar pointed out.
Tensions flared in June after Bhutan objected to an attempt by Chinese troops to build a road on the Doklam plateau. Indian troops, stationed in Bhutan under a special security arrangement, intervened, triggering the face-off.
Ashok Kantha, former Indian ambassador to China, said the Doklam incident had created a “degree of bitterness in relations. It is emblematic of the larger issues in the relations that need to be resolved. The meeting between Modi and Xi has given an opening for the two sides to follow through with sustained dialogue and diplomatic efforts."
On Tuesday, Jaishankar said both sides agreed that there was a need to enhance the level of mutual trust and that differences are dealt with mutual respect.
According to a report on the Chinese Xinhua news agency website, Xi told Modi that healthy and stable relations between China and India are in line with the fundamental interests of their peoples. Xinhua quoted Xi as telling Modi, “China is willing to work with India on the basis of the ‘Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence’ (or Panchsheel), which were put forward by both countries, to improve political mutual trust, promote mutually beneficial cooperation, and push Sino-Indian ties along a right track."
Reuters said Xi told Modi that “China is willing to work with India... to increase political trust, advance mutually beneficial cooperation and promote the further development of China-India relations along the correct path."
“China and India must maintain the fundamental determination that each other constitute mutual development opportunities and do not constitute a mutual threat," Xi was quoted as saying. He added that peaceful and cooperative relations were the “only correct choice".
The seeming rapprochement notwithstanding, Happymon Jacob, an associate professor at New Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University advised caution. “I would say that the Xiamen bonhomie will last till the next crisis, territorial or otherwise. Put differently, Sino-Indian relations are unlikely to be the same again —there is deep-felt unease, mistrust and suspicion between Beijing and New Delhi which will eventually trump diplomatic niceties. It helps both sides to move past Doklam at the moment, but the memories of Doklam won’t be easily forgotten by both sides," Jacob added.